The night shift

by Gabriella Sonabend

Yesterday morning it had been almost three whole days since I last left the residency and I was determined to venture outside no matter how unstable I may have felt. I spent the morning arranging my room into a better workspace and in the afternoon I took an auto-rickshaw to Assi. As soon as I passed through the gallery gates I realised what an enormous impact those three sheltered day had had on me. Somehow the high white walls of my room had erased the intensity of the world outside, so that when I stepped out onto the road it was as if I were taking my first steps in the city again. I panicked as I sat in my rickshaw wondering if it was possible that I could have regressed so suddenly. The sounds of streets seemed to be hammering at my ears and every smell suspended in the dusty air made me feel instantly nauseas. I could fill my nose clogging with the soot from surrounding street fires and I felt immediately dirty and uncomfortable.

Fortunately, I did not allow this panic to manifest itself outwardly and when I arrived in Assi I fell into the slow pace of the people surrounding me, walking along the ghats and through the alleyways, pulled by the tide of Banarasies, moving this way and that. I began to relax and the smiles of passing women responding to my greetings gave me small injections of energy and joy as I continued on my way. I had, however, overestimated my own physical strength and had forgotten how much energy the city demanded from me. Even the simple act of being and observing in such a foreign world becomes a demanding action. Here where every sight is a challenge to comprehend it is impossible to be passive even in moments of great stillness.

I walked through the Muslim area between Assi and the main ghat. This has become one of my favourite walks. Although it is not picturesque and the road is heavily polluted, crowded and piled with refuse; it fascinates me because the road follows through a cultural transition as one walks south to north. Suddenly the women become cloaked head to toe in black; the men are dressed in white with skull caps; shops are filled with chicken pens and there is a distinct lack of Hindu shrines and orange painted Hanumans and Ganeshas. Here the women walk in groups of no less than three and their eyes are heavily lined in black kohl. From behind they appear like an indistinguishable mass, the only shade of darkness on these brightly coloured sun filled streets, but as I walk towards them, or pass them on a rickshaw and greet them with a smile and a nod of acknowledgement, pairs of eyes seems to glitter with their own beautiful individuality. I suddenly am struck with the feeling that these are the most beautiful eyes I have ever encountered. Eyes trained to communicate the whole, to carry every flourish of body language and self. I am entranced and I feel a strange mixture of sorrow and joy for having glimpsed this intense beauty. As they stare into mine I am confused and I can’t tell if I am projecting my preconceived ideas about these women’s lives or if they are indeed trying to escape their bodies in that short sharp gaze.

I want to follow them and see where they live and how they live, how they are treated in their homes, how they communicated in private where there are no men and no public watching them. This is impossible, this will never happen. I will never be able to sit and ask, or simply watch. I try to extract all this from simple looks. My energy reserves are not great enough to carry me much further and I do not make it to the main ghat. For the sake of preserving my health, I take a rickshaw home and along the way we take side roads, which I have never seen before. We pass through quiet and surprisingly clean neighborhoods where children play calmly outside the houses and old women sit fanning themselves in the afternoon sun. To my horror the rickshaw driver decides to take a turn down a road where a group of teenaged boys have turned the area into a cricket pitch, I am the only woman in sight and try desperately to seem invisible as the rickshaw cycles obliviously through the centre of their game. The boys stop and make various gestures; I listen to music and imagine that I am in someone else’s body rather than my own.

At home I decide it is time to start making an artwork. I prepare myself for my first night of filming.

I arrange for Anil to pick me up from the gallery at 9.30pm; an hour which is neither too dangerous nor too crowded. My aim is to drive up and down the road I live on following the night shift. As I have mentioned numerous times our road is in a constant state of flux. This has fascinated me since my arrival. The state of the roads seems to be one of the main hindrances to civic progress. Every time it seems to undergo development something happens to undo its improvement almost instantly. The roads are a synecdoche of Varanasi. Constantly trying to be modern and ordered but hopelessly, charmingly falling into inevitable disrepair. Like the city it feels that they are doomed to remain trapped in the past; as if the ground soil of Varanasi itself refuses to be made new.

As I had hoped, the night is filled with workers; who work in pitch darkness, who work with the headlights of auto rickshaws, who work by small blazing street fires and builder’s lamps. They work tirelessly hammering away at brickwork, shoveling stones into baskets and carrying these baskets on their heads to the trucks where they dump the debris. Their motions are quick and efficient and their tiny wiry frames show no evidence of strain as they carry enormous weights and propel themselves into their work. With the street vendors and the other layabouts now either in their homes or sleeping under shelters, there is a very different image of the city painted on this road. It no longer resembles a strange waiting room where everyday people squat along the roadside and sit outside shops all day long seemingly anticipating something – anything. The dogs lie sleeping and save for the occasional horns the only sounds are of stone and brick breaking against old tools and the grunting of working men. I step in with my camera and try to capture something of this activity. The work seems to be causing further destruction and the street resembles a post-war photograph.

I am surprised when the workers are not bothered by my presence and in fact they welcome me to come closer until I am virtually standing beneath two men passing heavy loads of stones to one another. With my body mount on and my camera rolling, I am completely unaware of how people are behaving around me but I feel safe as Terry and Anil stand guard and my camera creates a strange force field. The intrigued workers and onlookers do not understand what my equipment is for and must think I am an extremely peculiar woman, walking around this way at night. I enjoy the strange miscommunications between us. Eventually, the workers simply accept my presence and continue as if I were invisible.